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Owen’s Trilemma and Ursinus: a case study in comparison (part 2)

September 6, 2007

[Part 1, here.]

I want to come back to this and close out my interest in this form of Owen’s trilemma.
Recall that I tackled Owen’s trilemma:

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:

  1. All the sins of all men.
  2. All the sins of some men, or
  3. Some of the sins of all men.

Now the structure of this argument is a nifty syllogism. The first premise is what I want to underline today. Now, for this, I am not actually trying to refute it logically or Scripturally. My aim here is historical: I want to show that contrary to our modern misunderstanding, the early Reformation theologians actually held to premise 1. Indeed, it was not until a later that premise 2 became normative.

I am going to continue the case study. And so to do this, all I need to do is cite Ursinus again.

1) The greatness of the punishment which Christ endured appears in this, that he sustained the dreadful torments of hell, and the wrath of God against the sins of the whole world. “The pains of hell gat hold upon me.” “God is a consuming fire.” “The Lord hath laid upon him the iniquity of us all.” (Ps.116:3. Deut. 4:24. Is.53:10.) From this we may perceive why it was, that Christ manifested such signs of distress in the prospect of death, whilst many of the martyrs met death with the greatest courage and composure.

David: Now, here someone who disagrees with me would have to argue that by “whole world” he really didn’t mean the whole whole world. However, there is actually nothing in Ursinus that would suggest that.

2) That he, all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the, end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation; and obtain for us the favor of God, righteousness, and eternal life….

The principal part of his sorrows and anguish were the torments of soul, in which he felt and endured the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind.

The keenest and most bitter anguish of soul, which is doubtless a sense of the wrath of God against the sins of the whole human race.

David: Now, someone might retort and allege that Ursinus was not actually say that the sin and sins of all mankind were imputed to Christ, but merely that Christ effected a bare sufficient satisfaction, such that the expiation would be sufficient for all men, could be sufficient for all, so to speak.

The problem is, no where does the text indicate this, rather, the stress is on Christ suffering the wrath of God for the sins of the whole world: which sustains the universally sufficient satisfaction, in Ursinus’ theology.

Indeed, all the circumstantial evidence militates against such an ahistorical reading of Ursinus. Take Kimedoncius, who was Ursinus’ colleague, and president of the Hiedelberg University at the same time. He said: Secondly, though we grant that the iniquities of all men were laid upon Christ; we deny the consequence that therefore by the sacrifice of Christ the sins of all be in very deed cleansed, and that all are justified, and received into grace.

This sort of statement from Kimedoconius can be cited from many other early Reformation theologians.

Take this comment from Kimedoncius. Kimedoncius is more aware of his own Reformation history than many of our experts of today: Bullinger, Gualter, Musculus, and others are cited, and the confessions of one or two Churches in Helvetia, out of whom these and the like kinds of sayings are diligently drawn: to wit, that “Christ, as (Bullinger. Ser. 2. De nativit Chri.) much as is in him is a Saviour to all, and came to save all: (The same upon 1 John 1.) that he pleased God by sacrifice for all the sins of all times: (Catech. minor Ecc. Tigur.) that his passion ought to satisfy for the sin of all men, and that he whole world is quickened by the same (Mise. in locia de remiss. p.q.2) that the grace of remission of sins is appointed to all mortal men,” and such like.

So to wrap up,

The trilemma actually was not an idea that functioned in early Reformation thought regarding the atonement. It came later. One may say, ‘David, you have proven your historical case, but not that it is logically or Scripturally in error?” To this I would agree that its a fair comment. Yet that was not my immediate aim. We can come back to it later. We can deal with the theological dilemmas and assumption laden within the trilemma. However, in terms of the historical question, the question of Calvin versus the Calvinists, this historical line of comparison presents a case against the Muller-Nicole side of the argument, as the Heidelbergers clearly had a different conception of their own history than the one tabled by Muller and others.


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